How Would Jesus Interact with a Muslim? An Interview with Bob Robinson
Can you suggest a text or two that, in your view, represent the most significant for Evangelical consideration?
I've already mentioned three significant "example" verses that I want to follow. And, if I had time, I would try to unpack the meaning and implications of Matthew 8:11-12—Jesus' extraordinary summary of the implications of the faith he finds in the pagan centurion. In my book Jesus and the Religions I actually deal with about thirty Gospel passages—some of them quite long—that could well transform how we engage with people of other faiths.
What types of implications does your thesis have for the present tensions in the Christian encounter with Islam?
In the time of Jesus, relations between Samaritans and Jews were uncannily parallel to what we have seen between Muslims and Christians over the centuries—and equally as bad. The words "slaughter" and "slander" come to mind as ignorance, fear, and misrepresentation have come to characterize the attitudes of Muslims and Christians to one another. However, what we find in the Gospels is that Jesus treats Samaritans with non-condescending respect; he heals them; he praises their faith and humility; he even uses a Samaritan as an example of God's compassionate mercy. We could do the same. Then, when we conservative Christians, with our firm sense of religious belief and commitment, meet Muslims we will be recognized by them as "serious" and worth talking with—perhaps much more so than liberal Christians or secularists. (As the conservative Imam at our local mosque says to us when we visit, "I like talking with you people.") For related reasons we religious conservatives have some real advantages in enabling Muslims to understand the ideals of the cultural and justice traditions of the global north. But so much remains to be done. Here's one radical suggestion: given the repeated emphasis by Jesus on forgiveness, how about we Evangelicals surprise Muslims by mounting a campaign for "Forgiveness as foreign policy" in our dealings with Islamic nations?!
You also suggest that our consideration of this subject should be understood as part of the grand narrative of scripture and our performance of it. Can you summarize your thoughts here?
There's far too much to summarize easily, John! However, consider the way that Gentiles and Samaritans feature very little (and mainly negatively) in the Old Testament. Then, as Scripture unfolds into the New Testament, they assume a much greater significance. It is the life (and death and resurrection and Spirit-sending) of Jesus that made the difference—as confirmed by the attitude of Jesus toward these outsiders. Jesus, especially in Luke 4, sees Gentiles as illustrative of the reversals that his Kingdom brings. In other words, we should learn to "see" and to "read" these outsiders by means of what you, John, have called a "Christological hermeneutic."
If Evangelicals will pause for a moment of critical self-reflection, how does some of the way of Jesus in interreligious encounter provide a rebuke for contemporary Christians?
In my experience, Evangelicals often or even usually react to the presence of other religions with either indifference or suspicion and anxiety; or fear, denigration, and triumphalistic confrontation. Liberals typically react with romanticized naïveté or even guilt—and I'm opposed to those attitudes too! But when Jesus meets the "aliens" of his day—Gentiles and Samaritans—he engages them with love, sympathy, help, and even appreciation at times. In our Christian denominations we greatly resent it when we're subject to misrepresentation by other churches. Well, Muslims feel the same about many of our attitudes to them.
What are some of the "take away" elements of Jesus' encounters with Gentiles and what do they mean for Evangelicals?
Consider how Jesus reacts when he meets Gentiles: he treats them not with fear or suspicion but with non-condescending respect; he heals them; he praises their faith and humility; he offers only the barest of criticism. So, while the command "love your neighbor" is found only once in the Torah, the imperative to "love the alien / stranger" in your midst is found thirty-seven times. The example of Jesus shows us how to do this loving.
Why are Evangelicals an important segment of the world's religious subcultures in terms of the positive potential for impact in interreligious affairs, and why should this be a major part of the Evangelical social agenda in the 21st century?
Firstly, our numbers, global influence, and missional, activist inclinations mean that we Evangelicals are very likely to encounter Muslims, for example, in the global south, or to meet and comment on them from the relative isolation of our enclaves in the global north. Secondly, the popularist dimensions of Evangelicalism will remind progressive and secular opinion that the vast majority of the world's people are religious. Because we Evangelicals also underline the central place of religious commitment (and reject any bracketing out of conviction and evaluation) we are well-placed to comprehend the worldviews of, for example, new arrivals in our nations. We know that authenticity in our meeting requires and will benefit from honesty of conviction and acknowledgement of real differences.
John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.